How tai chi can improve balance in aging persons

Our ability to walk and stand and move in all the ways that we do relies heavily on our sense of balance. For some time now research has been finding that tai chi can improve postural stability, especially as we age. Harvard University is particularly focused on such research, much of which is discussed in The Harvard Medical School Guide to Tai Chi (Wayne P, 2013).

For something that we take for granted for so much of our lives, the statistics can be a wake-up call.

  • Muscle strength decreases 20 to 40% between the ages of 20 and 70.
  • Ankle flexibility, which is critical for postural control, declines by 50% in women and 35% in men between the ages of 55 and 85.
  • Spinal flexibility is often the first thing to go, especially spinal extension (the ability to stand up straight). We have 50% less spinal extension after age 70 then we had in our 20s.

We don’t have to be “old” to see this progression. It actually starts in relatively early years of life.

As research findings show, it’s a no-brainer that tai chi improves balance. Tai chi practice does so by improving the conditions of aging reported above: improvements in muscle strength, particularly through changes in muscle use and control, joint flexibility in terms of range of motion and speed, spinal flexibility and extension, as well as alignment. Greater overall postural control is possible.

Since the day we stand and begin to walk, we rely on balance as we journey through life. I could tell in my own practice as I have aged that I started out in a particular state of balance and through practice progressed to where I am now. I am my own personal research project. I have seen the progression and can mark its passage in changes in my body and in the way I feel. I think every tai chi practitioner can say something similar if they practice long enough.

Lan Shou Quan powerstretching

Master Ye Xiao Long powerstretching in late 1990s in San Francisco at George Xu Summer Camp Training

Research also suggests that taking a 12-week course of two 90-minute tai chi classes per week can produce noticeable changes in your balance. I would say a number of other changes would be observable, as well. A sense of overall well-being, for example, might result; or a more relaxed feeling when in motion.

I would add that if you practice regularly for two years you would see rather amazing growth in your ability not only at doing tai chi form, for example, but at having cultivated a movement strategy for overcoming conditions, such as chronic pain. I have myself as a case study, but I know many who have stories to tell about overcoming ailments simply by sticking with their tai chi practice.

These positive strides from learning tai chi relate to balance resulting from addressing the functions of four systems in the body, as described by Dr. Wayne: musculoskeletal, visual, sensory, and cognitive. He dissects these into their components and by doing so makes it clearly evident how tai chi improves balance.

Tai chi is a practice of utilizing all of these systems with attention to how they are working in our minds and bodies. We become more adept at how we walk, stand, see, feel, breathe, and even hear merely by focusing on them in movement. Overtime we cultivate expertise through practice similarly to what we do as we grow up, but with a renewed emphasis.

Tai chi movements truly are the movements of life itself. We can transfer the specialized movements of tai chi to daily activities. Just the act of memorizing something new has significant benefits for brain function. And just the simple act of taking a walk can be a practice of tai chi, in addition to a healthy exercise. It’s nothing short of amazing for so many practitioners. I can say this because I’ve seen it and I’ve heard them say so.

We may not be able to completely eradicate the symptoms of aging, but maybe we could slow the decrease in muscle strength, or slow the lack of flexibility in the ankles and other joints. For me, it’s not a maybe, it’s a certainty. The catch is that you have to start and keep it up. The longer you wait the more catching up you have to do—but having less time in which to do it.

The good thing is it’s really never too late to start, especially if you have a knowledgeable and supportive teacher and a friendly group of fellow practitioners with which to practice.

We all have our own unique challenges to tackle in the quest to age more gracefully and with good health. This is something to keep in mind when beginning to learn tai chi movement. Hopefully, you will find a teacher who can help you through your particular situation.

The key is to see and feel progress which comes only after effort and time. Each us takes the time we need and makes the effort that we can and that sets your pace. I’m always confident that just about everyone can make progress and see the difference tai chi can make in their balance and other functions.

 

Paul Tim Richard shares perspectives on internal martial arts and the art of movement based on two decades of study. He has co-produced MastersFromChina.com instructional videos since 2002 and teaches fundamental principles of taijiquan and qigong in Colorado, USA.

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I like getting questions in class

“Every time we ask a question, we’re generating a possible version of a life.” – David Epston

Questions in tai chi group practice give me something tangible to relate to. They challenge me to delve into knowledge immersed just below the surface, waiting to emerge and bring light to a topic of interest. They bring teacher and student closer in shared experience and understanding. They bridge one story with another, thus creating a single story out of many.

Another article on research about research on tai chi

“Falling is the primary cause of traumatic death for older adults, and more than 17% of older adults report between one and five falls in the past three months. The problem seems to be getting worse.”

More research of research on tai chi.

There seems to be a steady stream of it for sometime. This article from Time.com refers to a report published by the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society on a review of 10 randomized studies on tai chi effects on balance. It’s another report on another study about more studies. I wonder if it actually influences more people to try tai chi.

The referred-to study and the Time article, build on the growing inventory of the benefits of tai chi in media and the research community interested in exercise modalities, particularly as they relate to the aging population of Baby Boomers. The body of text essentially is arguing for doing tai chi, without actually saying it outright. It suggests to readers to at least look into the subject.

The article concludes with: “More research is needed to determine just how beneficial tai chi really is in preventing or delaying the occurrence of serious falls.” I’m not sure if the article writer is making this conclusion or just repeating what the researchers state.

Either way, research papers and articles talking about them commonly conclude with such statements. So much so that they are drawing attention to the repetitive nature of cliche and un-examined habitual speech.

More research is not necessary, really. That might just be another research group throwing in its two cents on the efficacy of just another exercise method. More people just need to do tai chi and find out for themselves.

http://time.com/4874707/tai-chi-health-benefits-falls/

Refining Tai Chi: Bring in Life

When you practice, you’re not just moving the body, you’re bringing life into it. By circling the eyes, for example, you’re freeing them up from stagnation and decay (atrophy), and allowing them to serve as “gates” (men) through which energy may enter the body. Think of tai chi this way.

Starting tai chi with trust

When I started tai chi I didn’t know what to expect, but I was rather desperate. I had been ill for a long time and I was willing to try anything. It just so happened that a colleague at work invited me to join him in his tai chi class. So I did, and that was the beginning of my journey into discovering what tai chi is and what it would mean to me.

Essentially, tai chi is a journey of discovery for whoever endeavors to learn what tai chi can do for them. It’s a journey of accomplishment. The “excitement of discovery and satisfaction of achievement” is my fancy, wordy way of describing it.

One thing that I’ve always been pretty good at is doing things without questioning why I’m doing them, or questioning what teachers, preachers, parents, doctors, dentists, and friends tell me to do. I trust things that way. It hasn’t always served me well, but it has worked in the case of tai chi. I think most children are naturally that way–to trust without knowing where it’s going.

And that’s how I felt about tai chi when I began 17 years ago. I’m still practicing, and it is a major part of my activities. In the beginning, I took to it slowly—one 90-minute class a week. I had difficulty lasting the whole class, and several times I walked out before class ended. But at some point I was feeling better. I got really excited about how it, so I started training more intensively.

After a while, as most long-term practitioners are aware, I met a “wall of resistance.” By this, I mean that at some point in a practice you become challenged to go beyond yourself, and to seriously shift to a new level of skill. You’re not sure how to, though. You’ve never been there before.

In order to rise above the block, you have to make clear choices about wanting to continue. One thing I’ve learned after practicing and teaching for this long is that every beginner that comes along has to do the same thing. However long you practice, for a month or many years, you have to make a conscious choice every day practically to practice.

The truth is you’re always at a starting point at which you’re at a new learning edge. It’s a chance to learn something you didn’t know before. Sometimes that’s uncomfortable. But if there’s anything that we human beings are good at, it’s overcoming the obstacle of not knowing something and learning anyway. You just have to trust.

Where is the proof in tai chi?

They’ve got theories to explain and practices to prove, but you may never prove anything. However, the effort you make to do so is proof enough that it was important enough to at least try.

Memory vs observation and your tai chi practice

We rely on memory to get by, but as we age our memory gets a little slack. This is normal, they say. But the suggestions people make to help you manage forgetfulness as we grow older seem ineffective. My thinking is you have to figure something else out. Luckily, there is something.

We can train ourselves to be more observant. My reasoning for this refers back to a behavioral commonality among us. We do things without thinking. We don’t think ahead, nor do we look ahead. For example, I might have forgotten where I placed my reading glasses and often I can’t find them when I look for them. Since I don’t remember where I put them, I have to search around for where I think they might be. Then after an hour or so and a few attacks of frustration, I finally find them where I had already looked—right where I had left them. Often, they are right in the first place I looked, but I somehow didn’t see them. Why is that? Impatience? Sluggish mental prowess?

Probably. But my powers of observation were lacking, too. If I had looked more closely, I would have found them much more quickly. If I had taken the time and broken the tendency to rush the outcome could very well have been different.

We do this sort of thing all day long. I need to blow my nose because I just ate some spicy Cajun food. I get up to grab a tissue but I can’t find the box of tissues, because I moved them from my desk to the coffee table in the living room or to the bedroom nightstand. I walked right by them on the way to my desk. If I had been more observant, I could have saved myself a trip.

That’s what I mean by being more observant. We live our lives thinking our memory will serve us always. We expect to find what we believe we’ll find. That just doesn’t happen as much as we think. We go for a walk and spot something that looks like a broken piece of glass, but it turns out to be a fallen leaf lying in the dirt. We assume it’s a piece of glass before we actually know what it really is. We walk out the house expecting to find our car, our lawn chair, our lawn. Or a view of the ocean, or the mountains and forests, of the skyline of our city. But we seldom really look at them. We just expect them to be there and once we verify they are, we’re done. Move on.

Tai chi and qigong help me to cultivate my powers of observation. I still catch myself reverting back to old habits, but gradually, I’m changing. Some might say they already have a handle on it. That’s fine. They’ll find out if they can hold on to it as they age.

I return to this issue every time I stand in wuji and begin a practice session of tai chi and qigong. Because they are expressly an exercise in being observant. They help to cultivate awareness, concentration, and sensitivity to changes in the self and the environment. It’s good for memory and it’s good for aging.

Five years of blogging about taijiquan

This week marks the fifth year of venturing into blogging about taijiquan and its internal mysteries. My first post on December 5, 2011 is entitled “What is Tai Chi?”. I’m sure I will be trying to answer that question for the rest of my life. I may have wanted to quit at times, but I haven’t yet. Those peculiar dark slumps into the soul pit of delusion don’t last, and I emerge with renewed hope and insight. Now the sixth year of blogging begins.

I’ve struggled, as other bloggers must have, with whether I should blog. I’ve never been quite sure why I do. Some urge to write just happens. Why ask, then? One thing does come through the mind clutter—writing, just as taiji is, is an effort to extend awareness beyond self. Writing about it is a way of claiming the knowledge that I have amassed. Not that I am very knowledgeable, just happy to have overcome enough barriers to claim a semblance of victory over attachment to self. To savor my growth in some little way.

I’ve learned from practicing taiji that one must seek to eschew cliché and conventional thought if one wishes to exceed one’s limitations. That goes for practice, as well as for writing about practice.

I still struggle to craft words, sentences and paragraphs that help clarify my view and help others discover and organize their own views of the mystery of movement arts. In my case, it’s been taijiquan and qigong; but it could also be other forms, such as yoga, dance, and athletics, like running, skiing, swimming, bicycling, and so on.

When you’re at your best, you’re in nearly perfect yin and yang balance, the essential dynamic of taijiquan. Without perceiving these two points of taiji, you’re wouldn’t quite be doing taiji—the supreme ultimate expression of anything. In my mind, the greatest yogi is doing taiji—expressing taiji, manifesting it, giving it form and substance. As is the most masterful practitioner of internal martial arts that originated in China so long ago.

Thank you reader for your gift of attention. I hope to have been useful in your journey. To risk a little cliché— despite the distances, knowing you makes the world a little less lonely.

As I go forward, probably with the usual oscillation of forward-backwards-forwards again, I jot down an informal invocation for inspiration.

In your practice,
you have to be ready
to see something you’ve never seen before,
to do something you’ve never done before,
and to feel something you’ve never felt before.
And not get too surprised or overwhelmed
because of whatever might throw you off course,
and lose the concentration that got you this far.
You have to be ready for what you want.
That’s what you do this for.